Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Photophone

I found this old Tom Swift dust jacket on the Internet. It's from 1914, so it predates even World War I.

The technology needed must have seemed impossibly fantastic at the time. After all, television was still just a spark in somebody's brain; radio, "wireless," wasn't being widely used (the Titanic disaster was two years before); even telephones--as shown in the illustration--were hand-cranked devices needing the intercession of a live operator.

Flash forward to the 1960s, and Bell Telephone demonstrations of telephones with visuals of the person on the other end. You all remember Dr. Heywood Floyd talking to his daughter on a television screen in the movie 2001.

The idea just never took hold, because people like telephones as they are, without visuals. I remember the common complaint was, "I wouldn't answer it if I'd just gotten out of the bathtub," or if makeup wasn't in place, etc. In other words, the fact that no one can see you when you answer is a positive for a telephone. It really doesn't need the additional technology attached to it.

But the technology is here, just not being used as Bell Labs and Tom Swift, over 90 years ago, envisioned it. We have web cams, camera cell phones, and so we are connected via pictures. But the idea of plugging a few coins into a payphone, talking to the wife or kids back home and being able to see them, that idea is as antiquated as the scene on the jacket of Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone.

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